Sunday, 10 July 2011


The Tree of Life [Review]

Opinion: A

Without a proper plot structure and a high degree of indulgence in abstractness, The Tree of Life may be frustrating on a variety of levels to a variety of people. Despite a high walkout rate at my screening, nothing deters me from immersing myself fully in Terrence Malick's visual poetry that whispers of great elements in life such as nature and grace that spans from the beginning of time to a hinted afterlife. Euphoric and spiritual, this makes one of the boldest yet most beautiful visions in contemporary cinema history.

From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick's signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.

Terrence Malick's latest feature garners a lot of attention ever since it screened at this year's Cannes and impressed its jury so thoroughly that it was awarded the highest accolade - Palme d'Or. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that it's going to be on the top films of the year list for everybody. With several reported sleeping and walkout rates, The Tree of Life will prove to be a difficult film to find the rightful place in everybody's favour.

Despite so, I remained deeply engrossed and walked out feeling awestruck and inspired.

The Tree of Life breaks a lot of conventions without a sensible plot at its core (in fact, it is perfectly fair to say that there isn't one at all) and several jump cuts that transition non-coherent imagery to form the entire 139 minutes.

Nothing is elaborated and explained and you will find yourself often left to unravel for yourself through visuals or not at all, since the film's intention is not to guide you but instead subject you to a visual journey of life's memories and its essence. The film shortly enters a phase of graphical depiction of the big bang and the works of the Universe that is spiritually orchestrated by the music of Alexandre Desplat. Perhaps due to a whopping 20 minutes or so of back to back visual abstractness, it has prompted the first wave of walkouts.

When it comes to visuals, the quantity of quantity cinematography and images by Emmanuel Lubezki are plentiful. This film displays very pristine (digital) imagery well-photographed and fulfills the "a picture speaks a thousand words" and perhaps even more. The foundation of a motion picture works upon allowing the visuals to inspire stories and meanings within the audience, for this The Tree of Life has achieved very well indeed.

If there is one distinctive element that stands out, it's definitely the cinematography.

While the film is heavily dependent on the overwhelming photographic sequences that speaks of nature and grace, the camerawork on the characters are equally impressive. Throughout the scenes with humans (as opposed to those of the daunting nature at work) the camera fleets about as if they are tracked and observed by a spirit. This brings about a minutely eerie quality to it that doesn't haunt but instead coats the film with a spiritual sensation that is very appropriate.

Earlier on, I've highlighted the debatable feature of this film of not having a plot and conventional narrative structure. This poses a great challenge and Malick has bent the rules well enough to feed his ambitious vision of filmmaking. The Tree of Life is not a narrative, but a gentle showcase of the essence of life and the entire span of it through time and space. Using a lot of jump cuts, it allows Malick to transit fast enough to fit both the travel of time and his poetry style that propels the film forward since it doesn't have any plot device.

From the big bang to the creation of life, Malick has interestingly dwelled upon childhood innocence and its woes as the adulthood of Jack O'Brien is only briefly portrayed by Sean Penn. Malick tackles the question of how a family handles the demise of a child and through the eyes and mind of a young Jack, the film goes on a visual spiritual quest in search of an answer (as well as the existence and works of a higher being). While the answer that is proposed to the audience may not be a detailed one that satisfies, it brings to mind that no answer is definite for this particular question that Malick poses for his film to unravel.

It's ultimately a vision in Malick's mind that he later attempts to translate into a cinematic one. While some may pass it off as overly self-indulging that doesn't fit into the realm of film, it is still an important film made in today's cinema that stands out and shines a bright beam of light towards the Heavens in seek of higher grounds.


  1. I will definitely not pay to see this. I need action and plot when I invest my money in a trip to the theater. Sitting through a production where the only point is essentially people trying to find the meaning of life is something best done at home for free.

    I can tell from your excellent review that I probably will take several viewings to try and understand this and I am not really looking forward to that. I don't like books that require several readings in order to understand them, either. I prefer those readings/viewings give me something new to appreciate rather than revealing pieces I missed.

  2. Your opinions are very justified, Melissa, based upon your perspective. I see where you're coming from.

    However, there's probably one virtue in my opinion that warrants a theatre experience - the visuals and cinematography.

    Otherwise, I really agree with you.

    Thanks for sharing your views Melissa! :)


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